Tuesday, July 8, 2008

God's Problem

Discussion of this book is taking place at the Exponent. For more about the book, Dave Banack of Times and Seasons reviewed it, as did Chris Hedges of the Harvard Divinity School. You can also read and/or listen to the NPR interview with author Bart Ehrman.

God’s Problem is about Bart Ehrman’s problem reconciling a belief in an all powerful, all loving, actively involved God with the reality of the enormous suffering in this world. The book is extensive in its scope, and I find myself scanning my notes (several pages worth) and not even knowing where to begin. There are his textual criticisms of the various biblical passages where he contests authorship and origin, there are his extensive explanations of the various biblical answers given, and of course, there are his logic-driven rebuffs to those answers.
In tackling this problem of suffering, Ehrman did an excruciating job of detailing what is meant by that word, giving us gut-wrenching reality checks, the numbers and visuals of ‘suffering’ (i.e., 11 million dead in the Holocaust, 2 million dead at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, 30 million dead from the 1918 flu epidemic, every minute five people die of malaria, every minute 25 people die of water-related health problems, every five seconds a child dies of starvation, etc, etc, etc…). This book was not just about personal trials and learning experiences, he is talking about the extremities of human suffering that are prevalent throughout the course of human history. Those billions living in pain and dying in horrific ways, was it because they had sinned? Or as a test of faith? Or because of cosmic forces of evil?
God’s Problem brought up all sorts of emotions, challenged many of my assumptions, and left me with more questions than answers. His scriptural knowledge is impressive (I am also enjoying his book Misquoting Jesus), the contradicting explanations for suffering that he writes about have been on my mind a lot lately and his crisis of faith is one that I understand very well. I did find myself occasionally frustrated by the rigidity with which he held to an all-or-nothing view of the bible’s explanation of God. While rejecting the conservative Christian view of the bible as the literal word of God he still stubbornly refuses interpretations that are not solidly rooted in the bible. For example, Jesus as divine and suffering on our behalf, or a God that is less-than omnipotent, or an eternal reward in heaven… those are all concepts that he finds attractive, but not substantiated by enough biblical authors to be in consideration as answers; “…for a biblical scholar like me, I have to admit that it still seems problematic.” (pg 272.) I also found his ‘solution’ in the last few pages to be simplistic and shallow. However, given that the point of God’s Problem is to show how the bible explains suffering, once can hardly fault Ehrman for being rigid with what it says, or for not going beyond the scope of the book by expounding upon how we can alleviate suffering (a complex topic all of it’s own.)
This was a fascinating read, and I can’t wait to hear what you thought of it.

What parts of this book stuck out to you the most?
What arguments did you agree with? Which did you disagree with? And why?
Anyone up to challenging or expanding upon Ehrman’s textual criticism of the biblical authors?
What are examples of LDS scripture and doctrine on suffering, and how do they correspond to the biblical answers Ehrman talks about? Do they shed additional light on the subject?
And, of course, feel free to add anything else you’d like to share about the book or the topic.

(By the way, reading this book made me very excited to begin our next book, Take This Bread, which will be introduced in a few days. Sara Miles, raised an atheist, doesn’t have Ehrman’s burden of ‘biblical scholarship’ and as such finds a powerful interpretation of divinity in the bible, as well as a personal calling to help alleviate suffering in her community.)

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